Biden prods states to share burden as free college plan unveiled

President offers states three-to-one split on college aid boost alongside 20 per cent rise in Pell Grant

April 29, 2021
Times Square tribute to president-elect Joe Biden
Source: iStock

Joe Biden has set out details of his long-promised plan for college affordability, emphasising a major boost in the Pell Grant for low-income students and a federal-state partnership to bolster two-year institutions.

Mr Biden’s plan would spend more than $80 billion (£57 billion) to raise the current maximum Pell award of nearly $6,500 by about 20 per cent, to the point where it covers more than a third of the average cost of public tuition fees.

That would be combined with more than $100 billion for community colleges, in a partnership where states would be required to provide a third of the federal contribution, to make tuition at two-year colleges in effect free.

Mr Biden described his plan in an annual presidential address to Congress as part of a wider strategy to expand the right to no-cost education by two years on both sides of the nation’s current 12-year system of public education.

"This nation made 12 years of public education universal in the last century," the president told lawmakers. "It made us the best-educated, best-prepared nation in the world. It is, I believe, the overwhelming reason that propelled us to where we got in the 20th century. But the world’s caught up, or catching up. They’re not waiting."

Advocates of higher education have long sought a formula that would use federal support to force states – the dominant public funders of colleges in the US – to maintain their spending levels.

That need gained urgency after the Great Recession of 2007. In the past five years, however, states already have increased their higher education funding on average by more than 15 per cent.

Beyond proposing the federal-state partnership and the Pell increase, the Biden plan includes another $100 billion for students and institutions with large shares of minority and low-income enrolment.

The initiative was broadly cheered across US higher education. “These are wide-ranging, bold proposals,” said Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education, the main umbrella group for US higher education. “They portend a revolution in the financing of higher education.”

On Capitol Hill, however, Mr Biden’s ideas encountered a now-typical mix of Democratic embrace and Republican condemnation.

Democrats hold a majority in both houses of Congress, albeit a narrow one. That means that the success of Mr Biden’s overall approach – $1.8 trillion in spending on education, childcare and worker benefits – is seen as hinging on the willingness of more conservative Democrats to accept a funding mechanism that relies heavily on higher taxes for companies and the wealthiest individuals.

Mr Biden’s free-college plan also joins at least three other major Democrat-authored proposals pending in Congress. The most ambitious, a $700 billion plan to make four-year public institutions free to all students, has been offered by Bernie Sanders, who lost last year to Mr Biden in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Those on the other end of the political spectrum include Virginia Foxx, the top-ranking Republican on the House Education Committee.

The Biden plan was “yet another socialist ploy to expand government overreach into American homes and families”, said Dr Foxx, a former college research assistant and English instructor. “Childcare and post-secondary education need reform, but we cannot spend our way out of this problem,” she said.

Squarely in the middle sits Joe Manchin, a conservative Democratic senator often seen as the boundary marker of how much Democrats can pass in a 50-50 Senate, where the vice-president, Kamala Harris, can break any tie votes on behalf of the administration.

Mr Manchin has called himself “uncomfortable” with multibillion-dollar spending bills that Mr Biden has been pursuing in the name of post-Covid economic recovery. He has been less clear, however, on plans for reducing college fees, and was more emphatic in faulting Mr Biden for the idea of adding two years of public education at the preschool level.

The other major package pending from Mr Biden would allocate $2.3 trillion for infrastructure-related projects. That includes $250 billion over 10 years in new federal research and development spending. Several leading Republicans have expressed support for large boosts in research spending. Their party leaders, however, have largely adopted a strategy of rejecting all three bills.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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